Tuesday, December 17, 2013


I joined the Marines when I was eighteen years old. I wasn't crazy (officially diagnosed as such, anyway) and I wasn't drinking heavily (at the moment, at least). The factors that brought me to this choice and the things it said about me and about the world I lived in are worth considering, even if you've never considered doing anything of the sort.

First, however, I must acknowledge that there are good reasons that you may be thinking you've possibly stumbled upon someone else's blog. If you only know me from the present day, you know about 35lbs more of me than there was then, and not so much in a good way. In those days I was a competitive--slow, but competitive--swimmer, and would therefore have been much more likely to survive the substantial physical demands than I'd be right now now. Even if you are still having trouble picturing it, I expect that you've become somewhat accustomed to this aspect of the Slacker's Guide (see also: here and here) and are waiting to see how this one turns out. Like most things I tell you in my opening paragraph, the story is both just as simple and just as complicated as your first impression suggests.

Some of the factors in my decision:
  1. Outta here - I know I wasn't the only teenager to take inventory of his surroundings and determine that anywhere else would be preferable--even as this was absolutely not true. I know this because sometimes I ask students where they plan to go to college, and instead of naming a university and/or a major they just say "FAR, FAR AWAY." If you're wondering, yes, I did end up going to college directly across the street from my family's home, and yes I now live five miles from that same home. This was simply not how I though things were going to turn out from my perspective at eighteen.
  2. The G.I. Bill - I grew up with the belief that the cost of college tuition was going to be mine alone to shoulder. There was a lot of talk throughout my childhood about my Dad having pulled himself up by his bootstraps, and how he put himself through college selling magazines door-to-door, and how he had to drop out from time to time when he would run out of money. It seems I mistook his origin story for life-plan advice and family fiscal policy.
  3. Pay - Even pretty good after-school jobs (of which I worked two throughout high school)  paid like $5 an hour when I was a kid. However, gas was like $.79 a gallon, so it wasn't such a bad wage as it may sound to you. In fact as you can see here minimum wage then is pretty much what we have now--though still quite a bit less than at its inception. As a result, the prospect of pulling in $646 every month was pretty impressive to me. I tended to think of big purchases as stuff like '72 Ford Mavericks, mountain bikes, and new stereos back then--each of which came out to pretty much $646 a piece--so 2/3 of a grand a month seemed an inexhaustible supply of money to me.
  4. Adventure - I joined to see the world. No joke.
  5. That sword comercial - Marines wear a special garter to keep their socks up and their shirts neatly tucked. I don't know that this particular aspect appealed to me per se, but I was drawn to the whole attention to detail thing. I'm generally a mess in my housekeeping, manner of dress, and conversational/writing style, but as a musician I appreciate the importance of sweating the small stuff. The idea that the Marines could turn a person into something worthwhile in a few weeks can be fairly attractive to a Slacker looking to someday become something else. 
  6. Music - The armed forces all have serious music ensembles, but only the Marines have The President's Own. The fact that I would never have qualified for this group until I'd been to conservatory was a detail I was willing to overlook. My immediate plan was the Commandant's Own drum and bugle corps. With a fairly typical trumpet player's ego, the long odds of actually qualifying for this select ensemble never crossed my mind.
  7. Shock value - Adults don't always realize that every "You're going into the Marines?!?!" a young person hears can reinforce this decision as a great idea.
  8. Uncle Joe - Most people have an Uncle Joe in their lives. Mine was Captain of the State Police. He lived in one of the nicest houses I knew as a kid--he even had a pool. He was a Marine, in the The Big One, and had a Marines flag flying proudly on a big pole outside his back porch. I don't know what Uncle Joe's influence was on my decision, as it was entirely subconscious, but it no doubt was a factor.
  9. The ASVAB - My school had us all take the military's aptitude test--I think because they were paid a little for each of  us who did. Taking the test meant that the Army (and all of the other service branches) thought I was smart, and I like people who think I'm smart. However, as my father said at one point in the process: there are lots of measures of smart; using the Army's isn't necessarily the best.
  10.  The Recruiter - My recruiter was a master salesman. They all are, I guess, but he was either especially good or especially well-suited to me. He convinced me that it was mostly about getting in shape, seeing the world, getting paid, impressing girls, and getting out of town. He was especially virtuosic in small talk, flattery, bullshit, and banter. He made it very clear that all of this was my decision, on account of I was 18. He made it very clear that my asthma wouldn't be a problem, on account of...I'm not sure on account of what. 
Some would blame the recruiter entirely, but he wouldn't have gotten anywhere with me if it weren't for all of the rest of it. I had a girlfriend at the time who lived 30 miles away, who I managed to visit several times a week (remember: $.79 per gallon gas). She and I didn't even get along that well, but I was so dedicated to a lifestyle different from the one I was living that I was willing to sign on for anything. And sign on, I did. Without telling my parents. In fact, I was at the MEPS station before I had discussed my plan with anyone. 

What's wrong with any of this? A few things, and it took me a long time before I'd worked it all out. Much of this started trickling in right away, as people tried to talk sense to me before I was to ship out. Most of the rest was shared with me after my plans fell apart. Some of it I'm still trying to work through.
  • Age of consent - When should a young person really be permitted to make decisions without anyone's say-so? Actually, the answer is never. Every decision I've made without consulting someone turned out to be a bad one. I still fall into this sometimes, and I still pay dearly every time.
  • Mission creep - As the father of my best man said to me at one point, the armed forces have two purposes: to kill people, and to break things. Everything else they do--the parades, the shiny shoes, the disaster relief, the academy football games--is in some roundabout way in service of killing people and breaking things. Much of it is to recruit new people and to justify the vast budget required to fulfill their primary purpose.
  • Personality replacement - I was told, in fairly blunt terms, that the goal of Basic Training was to break down the person I was, and replace it with the Marine's improved version. Still, I was sure that I was going to be able to get through the whole thing with my old self intact. I knew lots of people who'd been through the military (and lots of imaginary people, like the characters on M*A*S*H) and you wouldn't be able to tell. Eventually it was pointed out to me that most of these people were draftees. People who entered the military on a volunteer basis--regular Army, career soldiers--almost never came out the same. 
  • Fighting - I was picked on as a kid, but I can't say that I'd ever been in a real fight. I didn't consider this to be a problem, because I didn't really associate the Marines with fighting. I grew up in the longest sustained peacetime this country has ever known. I came to believe that one could enter the armed forces and never take up arms. From my point of view, they'd have plenty of Marines who didn't play the trumpet to do the shooting in places like Grenada and the Falklands--even if we'd been pulled into that conflict. The fact that the Marines expected me to go to 6 weeks of rifle school after basic training should have alerted me to the fact that they might want me to shoot at someone during my service.
My military adventure ended as abruptly as it began. I had scheduled a whole series of doctors' appointments in the months leading up to my ship date, including an allergist. She was the first doctor to put "asthma" on my chart, even though I'd been using an inhaler for years. When the Marines did a thorough scan of my medical records, suddenly the asthma that wasn't a problem for the recruiter was a problem for the Marines.

I fought this pretty hard for a few days. I made calls up and down the chain of command, and so did my recruiter. Actually, I'm not so sure he made those calls. It became obvious pretty quickly that I was not as important individually to him as it had seemed throughout the process until that point. I was part of a quota system and I'm guessing that I didn't count against him for being disqualified for medical reasons. His time was much better spent finding new guys than trying to solve my problem. One day I just stopped fighting, and walked across the street to register for classes at LVC--joining a semester already in progress.

Still, the truth is that I needed the Marines, or something very much like it. I wasn't ready for college, or at least I didn't seem to be ready for college in the spring of my senior year of high school. I needed a buffer between life in high school and life that really mattered, and something like military service might have provided it. In other words, I needed an entity that does all of the things that the military does except for the one thing that it's really there for. I wanted to work hard for tuition money and to develop some skills, maturity, and discipline before I figured out what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted a way to make a living playing a musical instrument and a way to to travel on someone else's expense account.

If there is an entity like this to which I'm not giving proper credit--Peace Corps? AmeriCorps? City Year?--it needs the funding and access to high school students that the U.S. Marine Corps had to me. We spend $7.7 billion on recruiting, $50 billion on bands,  and 22 billion on family housing in the armed forces. Whatever I should have done instead of the Marines needs to have been obvious, available, and well-promoted. Instead, we  continue to absorb kids like me into the military industrial complex who just wanted an alternative to college for a few years.

You'd be forgiven for finding all of this all a little whiny. First, things worked out great for me in the end. It turns out I was ready for college, more than I though anyway. Far from flunking out in my first semester, I got out of there in four years with a degree, a job, and a wife--the Triple Crown of collegiate pursuits, as it were. As the military is obviously a much more dangerous neighborhood than it was in 1989, we need alternatives even more desperately. Today's students don't have the luxury of the delusions regarding what the armed forces may be asked to do that I suffered (enjoyed), and yet many of them make the choice I did. Perhaps they don't really have a choice.

No comments:

Post a Comment